Traumatised human smuggling victim wants to go home

The foyer of the Central Methodist Church, Johannesburg where victims of smuggling and other refugees from Africa find support. (PHOTO: Siven Maslamoney – )

[notice]Gateway News reporter JOHANITA JORDAAN spoke to Martin Munene, a victim of a human smuggling scam. She also spoke to a Johannesburg church leader who provides spiritual and practical support to many traumatised victims of such scams.[/notice]

Kenyan citizen Martin Munene found himself wondering the streets of Johannesburg, traumatised after a harrowing 12 days journey during which he was confined in a container by callous human smugglers who lure their victims by false promises of a new life in South Africa.

Munene’s story is like those of many “trauma and torture” refugees from African countries who, like Munene, found shelter and assistance at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, says Bishop Paul Verryn who heads up the inner city church.

Munene shared his vivid and heartbreaking story with me in an appeal for assistance to get back to his country. He explained that there were several people from Ethiopia in Mombasa who were acting as recruiters. They recruit people informally at social places.

“It all started in December 2012. I owned a small tuck shop business. They were recruiting people to work in South Africa. They were charging 150 000 Kenya Shillings (R15 000) to take one to South Africa. I was desperate because things are very tough in Kenya. So I accepted. I didn’t have travelling documents. They said that they know all the border people and we were to travel in a truck carrying some curios. They had prepared a false compartment in the truck where we were to be hidden by the cargo boxes. I sold all my stock and added some savings to raise the money.”

On December 28, 2012 they departed. Seventeen people where crammed into the small hidden compartment; among them were 6 women. There were three drivers, named Hilsi, Maalim and Heile — possibly false names.

“We drove for hours without stopping. The ventilation hole on top of the truck was too small and we could not differentiate days and nights. They would stop for long hours in what we learnt were border posts. At nights they would stop in remote areas and buy bread. We were given minutes to relieve ourselves in the bush,” said Munene.

“The heat became too much in the compartment we were crammed in on the 4th day one woman fainted. We knocked on the truck but the guys in front could not hear. It took more than 7 hours for them to make a routine stop in a remote area for us to relieve ourselves. It was too late for that woman; she was already dead. “

The body was simply dumped in a bush in Zambia and the 16 passengers left were simply told that they could get out if they were unhappy with the situation. Although Martin has already realized by this time that he has been robbed and scammed, he felt afraid to get out because he was in the middle of nowhere.

On January 10, after a journey during which they crossed the borders of Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe without incident, they reached the South African border on January 10, 2013. They were told to  remain very quiet because the truck would be searched. Late that afternoon Munene found himself in Johannesburg.

“They paid for me for a room worth R100 and promised to pick me up the following day so that they could take me to the employer who was to process papers for me. The other guys were to proceed to Cape Town, apparently with a train. They never came the following day and I never saw them again.”

Without a passport, any legal documentation and only R200 in his pocket he started speaking to people from the streets of Johannesburg who referred him to the Central Methodist Church which provided him with a place to stay.

Bishop Verryn told me that the church sees many people with stories of exploitation like Munene’s. While counselling them he has gained insight into their “seriously tortured” state of mind as a result of their experiences.

I asked Verryn what we as Christians can do to assist. His response was modest and simple. He said victims of torture and abuse needed urgent therapeutic intervention. The Central Methodist Church runs a weekly site of memory meeting at which victims receive counselling and are given an opportunity to share their stories. He said that unless they dealt with their issues victims of torture could become dysfunctional in society and potentially quite dangerous.

On a practical side it is critical to feed the victims. I asked if the church needed financial assistance to carry out this ministry. He said that sometimes they needed to send victims to Pretoria for assistance and a return train ticket costs R17.

From listening to Munene I realised that other assistance such as clothing is also critical. The church helps by providing R10 for a plate of food but for other needs they victims rely on contributions from the public.

As far as government assistance is concerned, the Home Affairs department said it would be willing to provide Munene with a 14 day travelling document to get back to Kenya.

Munene’s plea is simple: “I am kindly asking for your help to go back to my country because I am currently an illegal immigrant. Offer me any humanitarian assistance. I don’t have clothing or food.”  He said the cost of getting back to Kenya is approximately R5 000. This excludes the cost of getting started again.

Heb 13:2 Do not forget to receive strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained messengers. (The Scriptures 1998+)

Human smuggling is related to human trafficking but there is a difference. An expert who asked to remain anonymous said vulnerable people are willing to pay thousands of rands to experience the ‘riches’ of South Africa. Men are often lured by alleged opportunities of jobs on mines in the Vaal Triangle and women by jobs on farms and in salons. The major difference between human trafficking and smuggling are that Human Trafficking is a crime against the person and smuggling is a crime against the government. Human trafficking involves improper recruitment and some exploitative purpose such as prostitution. The profit obtained from smuggling is a fee but human trafficking involves ongoing financial exploitation of the victims. Often what begins as human smuggling develops into trafficking.

Anybody wishing to assist Munene or the caring and support ministry of the Central Methodist Mission can do so by contacting Bishop Verryn on 082 600 8892. Financial contributions can be made to the Central Methodist Mission, RNB Bank, Branch: Johannesburg, Branch Code: 261251, Account nr: 5045 064 4817. Sponsors should speak to Verryn to ensure that their donations are used for the intended reason.


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